The defiant one
"Señora Lydia, this was sent by the man at the table over there," the waiter declared, offering crystal flutes and a bottle of champagne, and nodding towards a man sitting opposite in Armani shades and Italian loafers.
It was 2005, and Lydia Cacho, Mexico's most high-profile investigative journalist, was celebrating her return from another risky assignment with two friends at the Puerto Madero steakhouse, on the docks overlooking Cancún's Nichupte lagoon.
The target of repeated death threats for her crusade against Mexican drug cartels and paedophile rings, Cacho had been aware of the man's intense gaze and declined the champagne, after which the waiter pleaded and even her friends urged her to just shut up and take it. But Cacho was resolute. "Tell him I appreciate it, but no thank you," she told the waiter.
Later, as Cacho returned to her table from the rest-room, the same man was leaning on a pillar - ready to corral her. She was aware of a soldierly bearing and a Virgin of Guadalupe medallion on a gold neck-chain.
"If you allow me, I'll eliminate the 'precious governor' and Nacif," he offered, alluding to Mario Marín, an allegedly corrupt governor of Puebla state in central Mexico, and one of Marín's business associates, wealthy textile businessman Kamel Nacif Borge, who had conspired to protect a paedophile recently exposed by Cacho.
"We have to clean up this country by getting rid of the rats who touch our children," he ran on nonchalantly, almost as though he was chatting about the weather. He proposed that if she dropped her napkin before he left Puerto Madero, "then I'll know that together we're going to save our children from those bastards".
Cacho returned to her table, palms sweating. She realised she had been face to face with Miguel Angel Cadena, a big wheel in the Zetas drug cartel, the soldiers-turned-gangsters who had helped to make Mexico a bloodbath. In the way of the underworld, El Bocinas, as he was known, clearly saw his line of business as morally superior to the child sex enslavement recently exposed by Cacho in Demons of Eden, a book that rocked the corridors of power in Mexico as it sold more than a million copies.
The moment Cacho returned to her friends, she gathered the three napkins and placed them in the centre of the table, lest one might accidentally get knocked to the floor. She couldn't have made her point more starkly, nor more bravely: she would not be corrupted by this man or his cartel.
As Cacho relates the restaurant encounter, flashes of fury light her eyes. A youthful 51, Cacho has the intensity of a Frida Kahlo portrait: face framed in sleek black hair, her slim frame curled up in the corner of a sofa in her lodge-style home, tucked away in the jungle north of Cancún. The threats to her life are so persistent she has a security consultant on call - and there have been times when he's advised her to leave the country immediately. Most often, the threats come by telephone. "We've already warned you, bitch, don't mess with us," she was told in one particularly savage call. "What's coming next is you'll be in pieces. That's how we'll send you home, you idiot!"
Early in her career as a young journalist, Cacho had a brutal warning of what she would be up against.
In 1999, she was snatched from a Cancún bus station, raped and savagely beaten in what was almost certainly retribution for her earlier writing. That attack is a staple in retellings of the Cacho story, but if anything the threats - and the retaliations - have escalated as her profile has grown with each best-selling book.
In Slavery Inc: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, published in English this year, Cacho takes readers on a tour of a worldwide, underground economy that feeds off not just drug barons, arms smugglers and pimps, but corrupt politicians and cops and the booming global tourism industry.
She wins the confidence of the women, girls and boys who have lived to tell her their harrowing stories after being captured, bought and sold - sometimes by their mothers.
Cacho's survival is astonishing in a country in which gangsters and drug barons are the real power; in which corruption trumps democracy; in which as many as 120,000 Mexicans, and dozens of journalists, have died in the so-called Drug Wars since 2000.
"Two years ago I lost three friends in the space of six months ... in Veracruz, in Mexico City, in Monterrey," she says.
"I've cried a lot ... but we have to do this work because the police and the authorities won't do it." When a colleague in the Nuevo Laredo badlands, on the US-Mexico border, came under attack recently, Cacho offered her sanctuary in her quirkily designed home: "She came for three weeks, to be safe physically and emotionally."
Cacho is pained at the mention of one of the most high-profile media killings of recent years, that of her friend, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
After years of being threatened, jailed, poisoned and, for a time, exiled, Politkovskaya was murdered in her Moscow apartment block in October 2006 at the age of 48.
The two bonded through regular gigs as speakers and panellists at human rights and free speech conferences around the world: Cacho on corruption and women's rights in Mexico; Politkovskaya on corruption and oppression in Russia in the context of the Chechen Wars.
They liked to talk and to drink vodka. Cacho: "Our conference talks were almost identical. The only difference was she was talking about Russia and I was talking about Mexico. We met in the US, the UK and in Norway - and then they killed her."
Cacho admits that her work burns up relationships: two husbands who couldn't cope with the pressure and didn't want to get killed. Some friends also melted away, simply because in the gangland culture of today's Mexico, Cacho was too hot. "I have lots of protection from my really good friends. We are very connected and we see each other all the time."
Her family is an emotional fortress, from her five siblings to her two adopted daughters and their children. Her Mexican engineer father taught her discipline and toughness; her now-deceased French-Portuguese psychologist mother, how to strategise, to network and to empathise.
Cacho's father celebrates her every success and, when trouble brews, he summonses a family council of war. "It makes a huge difference when you live in a family as great as mine, " she says.
The revelations in Demons of Eden not only resulted in a life sentence for multimillionaire Cancún hotelier Jean Succar Kuri, who ran a child pornography and sexual abuse racket, but also damaging publicity for the network of wealthy businessmen and ambitious public officials who tried to shield him.
Some of the most damning evidence came from a young woman who had been abused by the hotelier as an eight-year-old; as many as 100 more girls were abused by him, including one who taped him boasting that his "vice" was to have sex with four-year-old girls.
A month before the book's launch, a stranger walked into Cacho's office in Cancún with a suitcase stuffed with cash.
"He said I could have $1 million for my NGO if I would drop the book - the message and the money were from a corrupt Mexican senator," she says. Then, six months after publication, in December 2005, the author was abducted as she approached her office.
Her gun-toting kidnappers turned out to be policemen from Puebla, the capital of Puebla state about 1500 kilometres away in central Mexico, and that was where they took her.
"They had their guns in my mouth and in my genitals," she says. "I was handcuffed and they made me lie face-down. As they drove through the night, they undressed me and took turns sitting on me. At the sea, they debated shooting or drowning me. For maybe an hour they'd put me in the car, pull me out; push me towards the water, then drag me back. One of them took a phone call and then they told me I wasn't going to die."
On approaching Puebla, she was handed over to two policewomen, who demanded she say they had been with her for the whole 20-hour drive. "When they offered me the use of their lipsticks, I told them, 'F... you.' "
Cacho thought she was safe after being delivered to the office of the Puebla state attorney-general. But she was taken to a room that was blood-smeared and stank of urine. "I was thrown to the floor and some guys came in and said they were going to give me a good spanking."
Then they brought in a young journalist - with a video camera. "She kept asking me to agree that they had not harmed me. I refused. Then a woman senator came in and whispered in my ear as she hugged me, 'They want to kill you ... it's the governor of Puebla.' "
Cacho became aware of the presence outside of her lawyer, father, then husband and other friends. She was crying - as much out of humiliation as fear.
As our conversation stretches into the late afternoon, Cacho mentions another rape, apart from the bus station assault in 1999, one that she says she has never spoken about publicly before. It occurred during her detention in Puebla, after she was taken to the room in the state attorney-general's office.
"They took me to the jail and made me strip while the male cops were hanging around. Then I was raped and tortured - I could barely stand up; I was fainting when they told me to put my clothes back on.
"After 20 hours of abuse in the car and [then the]rape and torture in prison, they were pleading with me to sign a prepared statement, which would have been an admission that Demons of Eden was lies; that I had concocted it all to make myself famous. I wasn't signing that."
Any doubt that a top-level conspiracy was involved in Cacho's ordeal evaporated just weeks later when the Mexican newspaper La Jornada published the first in a sensational series of stories quoting phone-tap conversations between the textile businessman Kamel Nacif Borge, the Puebla state governor Mario Marín, a state attorney and a judge.
It was the state attorney who conspired to detain Cacho on a charge of defaming Nacif, who was mentioned in Demons of Eden as an associate of Kuri, the mastermind behind the paedophilia network.
On the phone tapes, governor Marín is heard doing a deal to lock Cacho up, in a bid to silence her. In another call, Nacif listens as an unidentified voice urges him to "pay a woman in the jail to rape [Cacho]".
The King of Denim, as Nacif is known, responds: "No, no, no - I've already given the order, she's [in] with the crazies and the lesbians." The governor is heard gloating about how he "finally gave a head slap to that old bitch" and Nacif fawns over him in thanks, addressing him as "my precious governor" - to which the governor returns the favour, addressing Nacif as "my hero".
The tapes revealed that Puebla judge Rosa Cecila Perez could be bought for as little as the promise of a holiday in Las Vegas. As Cacho recalled of the phone taps: "We had one of these guys laughing because I was to be raped in jail."
It was a female state attorney who had arranged the rape: other female prisoners had held her down while it took place and then beat her up. Her subsequent trial on a trumped-up charge of criminal defamation was handled by Rosa Cecila Perez, who was in league with the Lebanese-Mexican mafiosas punishing her for revelations in Demons of Eden. "Sometimes women, too, want power, and they'll enslave other women and kill them to have it," she argues.
In 2007, Cacho became the first woman to take a human-rights abuse case - over her treatment in Puebla - to the Mexican Supreme Court, which produced a shock outcome on two counts. The court found her Demons of Eden account of events to be truthful but, in a finding that reeked of pressure and corruption, the bench concluded that there could be no formal finding against her Puebla abusers until it reviewed the rules under which such a finding might be made.
One of the judges later admitted she found against Cacho after she became the target of a campaign of political pressure. Undaunted, Cacho is now finalising a case to take to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a tribunal based in Costa Rica and established under an Organisation of American States treaty to which Mexico is a signatory.
Why has Cacho chosen to reveal the Puebla rape now? She isn't sure - and she seems somewhat surprised that the words tumble so easily from her mouth as we sit with glasses of iced-tea, her dogs lounging in the cool of a July afternoon. "In Memories of an Infamy [a 2008 book on Demons of Eden and its sensational aftermath], I wrote about the rape - and then I removed the passage. I wasn't ready to talk about it. There were so many interviews that focused on my ability to understand and to explain, and I can't tell you how many TV interviewers tried to make me cry.
"So I thought it was healthy to not talk about it. I'm not interested in sitting down to talk about how it affects the rest of my life [because] we live in a society that is more interested in listening to a victim than to a survivor."
Historically, says Cacho, gender inequality and discrimination had been less a bias to be frowned on, and more an accepted cultural value. "People get angry when I say this, but women live in a kitchen, they respond to a husband and they obey - and this is pushed by religious cultures around the world.
Even after two decades of child abuse by the clergy, they keep repeating their nonsense that women have no rights over their bodies - our bodies belong to the church and the state.
"Equality these days is a veneer; I don't think it's very deep. Politicians, most of them, understand that they are obliged to talk about gender equality, but in appropriating the word they have voided it of any real meaning."
She's talking about the world, but she skewers her own country: "Come to Mexico and read the laws on gender equality and you'd think that we have evolved as a country, but look closely and you see that it's just politics."
As Cacho sees it, sex slavery is fuelled by a cocktail of "sexism, misogyny and the normalisation of prostitution and internet pornography". She writes of men's erotic fantasies feeding a demand for sexual slavery - and thereby being the root cause of a nightmarish enslavement of millions of women and children.
Cacho is troubled by what she calls the "pornification" of young women in their attitudes to their bodies, sex and relationships; what she sees as their failure to understand the feminist notion of "owning their own bodies"; the impact of pornography on teenagers, and on girls in particular; and their exposure to, and acceptance of, sexual violence.
"The response to all this is for people to retreat into religious mode with bouts of moral panic, when what we need to be doing is trying to understand what's happening. Is this a new paradigm for kids? Why are adults not talking, not listening to kids to try to understand?"
Cacho is preoccupied, too, by a sexual crisis among teenage boys and young men. "They don't know what the heck is going on," she says. "They're supposed to be caring, sensitive and even sweet, but they're also expected to be machines who will have sex with a lot of girls; they get used sexually by girls and if they question that abuse, then they're not real men. Their emotional crisis is our social crisis."
Cacho insists that exposure to pornography makes teenagers easy targets for sex traffickers. She doesn't buy the argument that legalising prostitution will stop the global trafficking of women, girls and boys for sexual enslavement.
This takes us to one of the more intriguing turns in a long interview - Cacho speaks in humane, sympathetic terms about the childhood of the man on whose behalf she was abducted, tortured and raped.
As a witness against the Cancún hotelier Jean Succar Kuri, she gained access to his court-ordered psychological profile. "He narrates how he was sexually abused throughout his childhood by his brothers and cousins. It was not in a sense of him being a victim of abuse, [but] by his understanding that it was normal. Most people don't understand this - especially the parents of children - but for millions of men around the world, it's okay to rape a baby, a boy or a little girl."
Arguing for special early attention to gender equality education for boys, Cacho tells me: "We have to understand that little boys become men and they will become cruel and violent unless they are taught otherwise. Boys are formed as young men by age 21 - they have their ego and their personality, so there's not a lot you can change by then. And most people think they are normal, so why change? The issue, then, is the upbringing of boys. We can't keep documenting violence against women and girls without looking at boys; that's where the problem is."
Lydia Cacho is a journalist, an activist and advocate, a helper and a carer. Is she a victim? She brightens: "No - I'm a survivor and that entails certain responsibilities. The circumstances of my life have offered me a glimpse of the ugliest side of a monster and have put me in a position to reveal its most savage dimensions."
The business of keeping Cacho alive is now an international project. From time to time, the Mexican government has been shamed into giving her a security detail; the likes of Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists activate powerful campaigns when she is threatened; and there are standing offers of sanctuary and asylum from various governments, including the US.
Her house is festooned with security cameras. She keeps her passport handy and a bag packed, all ready for when she has to run for it. Her conversation is peppered with chilling asides, such as when she explains why she has a security consultant: "... because the government does nothing".
The most recent threat was plain enough - a call on what later was found to be a throwaway mobile. She had been writing about an Argentinian human-trafficker and his brothel empire in Argentina and Mexico. "A male voice told me this guy was really pissed off by what I was writing - and that I was going to die."
Sydney Morning Herald